GMOs: to Label or Not to Label?

A genetically modified organism is an organism whose DNA has been altered or manipulated through genetic engineering. Individual genes are transferred from one organism to another to produce crops that carry specific desired traits such as larger size and resistance to disease and insect damage. Making genetically modified plants can take a few forms: by mixing plant cells with a special bacterium (agrobacterium) which injects DNA into plant cells; or using a gun to deliver DNA into the nucleus of a plant cell. Nonetheless, all people have the right to access information about the foods they eat, and transparency in food labeling is an essential factor in creating an equitable food chain in America.

There are many arguments for how labeling GMO’s will be beneficial to society. First, people have a fundamental right to know what they’re consuming. Studies have shown, time and time again, that people want to know what they’re eating and want to be able to make informed food choices. For example, a 2012 poll from the Mellman Group showed 91% of American’s are in favor of the FDA requiring GMO labeling. Food access not only means physical access to healthy food choices, it also means access to information regarding the foods we consume every day. Second, GMO’s are not safe for consumption. While proponents of GMO’s continue to claim their safety for human consumption, there have been staunch debates on the subject. A community of independent scientific researchers and scholars challenged GMO safety claims in a joint statement concluding that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety. Further, they believe the decision to continue and expand GMO use in human food and animal feed supply must involve the broader society and should be supported with strong scientific evidence of long-term safety obtained in an “honest, ethical, rigorous, independent, transparent, and sufficiently diversified [manner] to compensate for bias.” GMO crops have also been linked to an “explosion in the use of toxic weed killers” that have been linked to cancer.

Although there are arguments against GMO labeling, they are unconvincing and pale in comparison to the rights of consumers to know what they’re eating. Proponents of genetic engineering claim its safe because it has taken place for thousands of years. The first genetically modified crop was created thousands of years ago by bacteria soil effecting sweet potatoes (See agrobacterium above). Researchers have found genes from bacteria in 291 sweet potato varieties around the world that they believe helped the crop’s wild ancestor produce hormones that changed the root to make it edible.In addition, many large food manufacturers claim GMO labeling will create a sharp increase in food prices, and have started to turn to Congress. While the GMO labeling debate has mostly been handled on a state by state basis that could soon change. In July, a solid majority of the House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill that would block states from mandating GMO labels—dubbed the “Denying Americans the Right-to-Know” (DARK) Act by those in support of GMO labeling. Supporters of the bill claim that mandatory labeling would drive up costs because consumers would be less likely to buy GMO products due to the stigma associated with genetic engineering.

Today, 64 countries around the world require GMO labeling while the DARK Act continues to gain speed in Congress. Even though more than 30 states have introduced legislation to require genetically engineered (“GE”) labeling, the passage of the DARK Act would preempt state authority to label and regulate GE foods and would codify the current broken system of “voluntary” labeling. Passage of the Act would also prevent the FDA from requiring companies to label GE foods, and allow “natural” foods to contain GMO ingredients. With a continual mix of contradictory information and studies surrounding this issue, one thing is certain: the debate on GMO foods isn’t going to fade anytime soon.

Interested in advocating for GMO labeling? Find out more here and here!

Post by Katelyn Canning – Research Fellow